Homeland Insecurity

By Dawn Downey

I struggled for balance as the tide sucked the sand from under my feet, wrapping kelp around my ankles. The receding surf blanketed my toes with foam and left them icy, even as the setting sun warmed my shoulders. Gulls screamed at dogs let loose by their owners. I backed away from the water and strolled uphill to join my best friend Angie at a picnic table in the grass.

We were spending the night on East Beach with her siblings and her cousins who had driven up from Mexico. We had a job to do: stake a claim on a spot for the following day’s Fourth of July gathering. Mothers and abuelas from different families would arrive early in the morning to cook chorizo and eggs, but the night belonged to us teenagers. We danced, gossiped, and smoked pot. I flirted with Angie’s cutest cousin. We wandered along the beach to see who else was camping out. Mariachi music drifted from a car stereo. When we finally crawled into our sleeping bags, stars were poking through an inky sky. I pulled the bag tight against the cold California night until only my eyes were exposed. Phosphorescent waves rolled in, as sparks rose from our fire pit along with the scent of burning wood. An occasional snap broke the lull of the ocean’s roar.

That summer in high school, the cadence of Spanish came as easily to my tongue as English did. Lying on the beach with Angie and her cousins, I scrunched into the sand until it conformed to the contours of my body. They were my tribe, the beach our homeland. But it was a borrowed sense of belonging. It receded when our friendship ebbed.
This morning, I planted nine seedlings
in a strawberry pot, seeing,
instead, the lane leading up to the farm.
If you can’t go home again then why
do I go home so often? Why trace
my bloodline down the side
of a red clay pot?
            –––From A Red Clay Pot, by Janet Sunderland

 When I was a child, home was a bright yellow two-story in Des Moines,. A brick sidewalk led up to our screened-in front porch, which offered scant protection from mosquitoes or june bugs. Dad hung a razor strap on a hook beside the door between the porch and the living room, warning my siblings and I to stay on our best behavior.

I suppose we farmed a bit––helped Mama pick rutabagas and dandelion greens for supper. Hard packed clay soil poked my knees. Sweat traced lines down my forehead, the salt stinging my eyes when I wiped it away. Mama studied the Burpee seed catalog at the kitchen table and planted marigolds, but our yard was more arsenal than farm. It grew snowballs, rocks, and buckeyes, which bullies threw at my head. After ten years in Des Moines––I was fourteen at the time––Dad moved us out to California. The brick sidewalk leading up to the yellow house did not burn an after-image in my heart.

Home was a place I could not fathom, the mythical Land of Oz, instead of the farmstead Dorothy tried to get back to. 

I spent five winters in Minneapolis with my first husband. On the February day we first pulled into town, the temperature dipped well below zero, yet joggers and bikers in brightly colored tights crowded the trail around Lake Harriet. An environment that froze your nose hairs from October to May could not be ignored. You had to come to terms with it, or else build your life around hating it. I adapted. I learned to navigate downtown skywalks. I learned the value of front wheel drive and a manual transmission. Mastered plowing my Honda CRX through bumper-deep slush. Prided myself on the ability to take off from a stop sign at the crest of a slippery hill. Those were the survival techniques of a foreigner. Locals, on the other hand, traced their bloodlines in the rituals handed down by the tribe. Certain behaviors defined fitting in. Ice skating. Ice fishing. Ice sculpting! I signed up for a class, but failed to master staying erect on cross-country skis, atop snow crusted over with ice. I could not discern the names of the people leaving messages on my office phone: Lena Larsdatter, Hans Helland, Tormod Oefstedal. And what was a hotdish?
For every house I’ve called home, I did not go home again. Iowa, California, Oregon, Minnesota, Missouri. A roll call of places where I failed to set down roots. A litany of states describing a single state of mind: outsider.
I’ve been in Kansas City thirty years, certainly long enough to develop an attachment, but by the time I’d moved to my suburban split-level, a wary relationship with place had already set in. I planted marigolds in red clay pots around my patio, in a simulation of homestead, but when I leave for a daily walk, neither pots nor patio linger in my mind’s eye. The front steps cease to exist as soon as they're behind me. I don’t look at my street and see the snow packed lanes of Minneapolis. And nothing pulls me back to Santa Barbara’s shoreline. I live near a wooded area crisscrossed by blacktop trails. A deer once startled me on a day I’d braved our miniature forest. She stood at attention a few yards away, her head lifted in my direction. We eyeballed each other and then she stepped daintily into the brush. I envied her sure-footedness, the way she seemed to know where she was headed and where she’d come from. The environment looked opaque to me.

Copyright © Dawn Downey. All rights reserved.

Dawn Downey is the author of “Stumbling Toward the Buddha: Stories about Tripping over My Principles on the Road to Transformation.” An essayist, Downey finds inspiration in everyday situations. Topics under her scrutiny range from her pursuit of the perfect purse to her search for the meaning of life. Toss in jealousy, prejudice, guilt, and inadequacy for good measure. Thanks to a spiritual path that winds through the teachings of the Buddha and around to non-duality, she now enjoys a kinder, gentler relationship with her eccentricities.

Downey’s essays have been published by The Christian Science Monitor; Shambhala Sun; Skirt! Magazine; Kansas City Voices: A Periodical of Writing and Art; and The Best Times. Her work is anthologized in Alzheimer’s Anthology of Unconditional Love: The 110,000 Missourians with Alzheimer’s; My Dad is My Hero: Tributes to the Men Who Gave Us Life, Love, and Driving Lessons; and the Cuivre River Anthology. Her writing has earned awards from the Missouri Writers Guild, Oklahoma Writers Federation, Northern Colorado Writers, and the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. She lives in Kansas City with her husband, Ben Worth (aka publisher, roadie, and driver). He spoils her rotten. She reciprocates. Read her weekly blog at www.dawndowney.com

Tiffany Midge "Outlaws, Renegades and Saints"

Being a mixed-blood is no easy road, and Tiffany Midge makes her art from the collision of irreconcilables. The writing is sometimes funny and heart stopping at the same time: “It’s my birthday. I ask my mother, ‘when I grow up will I be a full-blooded Indian?’” Midge’s poetry is informed by an in-your-face refusal either to romanticize her life, or to accept the place that has been “assigned” to Indian peoples: to accept extinction: “listen/can you hear the dead talking?/They are saving and resurrecting us all.” ~ from Oyate

At the Oil Celebration Powwow


At the oil celebration powwow give-
aways are the gift that keeps on giving.
The Indians true to their traditions continue
to give what the whites have taken from them—


food when they were starving
blankets when they were freezing
clothing when they were naked


Ethel Iron Thunder gives a Pendleton wrap to Minnie Spotted Elk/
Minnie Spotted Elk gives a star quilt to Silas Tail Spins/
Silas Tail Spins gives 20 lbs of frozen venison to Victoria Walking Child/
Victoria Walking Child gives a case of chokecherry preserves to John &; Myra Two Feathers/
John & Myra Two Feathers gives Cain Long Bow $100 towards his college tuition/
Cain Long Bow gives Alice Brought Plenty 10 yards of bargain basement fabric/
Alice Brought Plenty gives Ruby Savior a plastic bag of accumulated Copenhagen chew-top-lids/
Ruby Savior gives Mary & Victor Red Wing a beaded cradleboard for their new arrival /
Mary & Victor Red Wing gives Scarlet Comes At Night their family’s secret frybread recipe/
Scarlet Comes At Night gives Ethel Iron Thunder insulated rabbit fur slippers and matching blue mittens and scarf.


Define Indian giver in 10 words or less:
All of the above.


Grandma Iron Thunder tells me
that Giveaways are to Indians
what Christmas is to white people.

~Tiffany Midge "Outlaws, Renegades and Saints"

Copyright © Tiffany Midge. All rights reserved.
First published at breakfastattiphanys.blogspot.com

Tiffany Midge is the recipient of the Kenyon Review Earthworks Prize for Indigenous Poetry for “The Woman Who Married a Bear” (forthcoming) and the Diane Decorah Memorial Poetry Award for “Outlaws, Renegades and Saints; Diary of a Mixed-up Halfbreed” (Greenfield Review Press).  Her work has appeared in North American Review, The Raven Chronicles, Florida Review, South Dakota Review, Shenandoah, Poetry Northwest and the online journals No Tell Motel and Drunken Boat.  An enrolled Standing Rock Sioux, she holds an MFA from University of Idaho and lives in Moscow, Idaho (Nez Perce country).

Children of the Powwow

By Terra Trevor

When I was invited to lead creative writing classes for elementary school children I discovered that the teachers, the children and their parents had a desire to learn more about American Indians.

Since November is National Native American Heritage month, too often teaching the rich histories of Native Peoples is braided together with Thanksgiving, which does not offer an accurate history of Native America. This limited view also does not humanize the otherwise “vanishing race” and share the stories our people would like told.

The children explained to me that they had few opportunities to meet and talk with American Indian people. Their quest for a deeper understanding then developed into an idea to take the children to a Powwow, and they asked me to lead them into a day of drumming, dance and regalia.

While we planned our journey, thoughtful questions the children asked allowed me the opportunity to share my perspectives on the importance of dismissing the stereotypes of the stoic warrior, the Indian princess, the uncivilized. I helped them understand that many of the old photographs we see in books are only pictures, and that even in the olden days many American Indians didn’t live the way they looked in the photos. I explained that when American Indian people are compared to these old photographs and stereotypes outsiders often tell us that we don’t look Indian. How do we counter this predominant notion and change the way Native Americans are viewed in popular culture?
My inspiration came from Project 562: Changing The Way We SeeNative America by Matika Wilbur. Project 562 creatively addresses and remedies historical inaccuracies, stereotypical representations, and the absence of Native American images and voices in mass media, and the national consciousness.
We decided that our starting point, and our goal, for attending the powwow would be to help the children counter stereotypes and increase their core understanding of what it means to be Native American in America today, and to place new authentic and accurate images in their mind.
By no means do I believe that I am an expert regarding powwows, or have expert knowledge of Native American people. Learning is a lifelong pursuit. What I know comes from growing up Native American.
Before we traveled to the powwow I sat down with the children and with their parents, and told them the stories I am sharing with you now. My hope is that if you have never attended a powwow, or have a wish to understand more, and about dismissing the stereotypes, you will feel encouraged. 

Powwow is a modern-day word. All of the Elders I know tell me that before the First World War they were called gatherings. After the corn was all dried, pumpkins sliced and the wild plums brought in it was a time for giving thanks. When the food was together for the hard winter months and when the work was all done they gathered. After World War I these “gatherings” were held to honor those servicemen who came back.

Today a powwow is a reunion for many Native families, clans and tribes spread apart in different cities or reservations. There is the exchange of news, ideas, song, and dance, Native fashion, style and art, and it’s a time when Native people reflect on traditions. 

Personal Reflection: I am gathered with friends and family under a bead blue sky, my shawl is folded over my arm, and although we’ve been laughing and joking all morning, now we are quiet, silence is our conversation and it tells me more than words. We are careful to sit a safe distance away from Eagle feathers and dance regalia, and we don’t touch anything that belongs to someone else.
A powwow runs on “Indian time” which means that it will begin when all the drums and dancers are ready. When everyone is ready, first there is a Ground Blessing. Then the flag bearer’s lead in with the American flag, the state flag and an Eagle Staff. Next the Grand Entry; the dancers represent many different tribes. After all the dancers are in the arena a Flag Song is sung, a Prayer is offered, followed by a Victory Song. I feel the heartbeat of the drum. Hundreds of Indian people wearing soft moccasins are dancing. Men, and women carrying babies, boys and girls, and the Elders who barely move staying close to the earth.

The drum is one of the oldest memories an American Indian has, it has always been with us, and is the single most important element of a powwow. The dance arena or arbor is sacred and is respected, like the inside of a church. Many Native families travel hundreds of miles to attend powwows across the continent. Time and distance are not relevant; it is the renewal of traditions, which is of paramount importance. It brings a long heritage back into the framework of real life.

While growing up I was taught each person has her or his own personal observance for dancing, drumming, singing and for being present at a powwow. Native people gathered around the arena are not observing—we are participating as we form a circle around the drums, singers and dancers.

Visitors are always welcome, but powwows are an Indian event and are usually not directed toward non-Indians. Listen carefully to the Master of Ceremonies; this is a time for utmost respect. Ask before you photograph.

It is polite to ask permission from the dancers before you take a picture if they are away from the arena. It is necessary to ask because some do not want to be photographed due to our longstanding traditional beliefs. Throughout the day I ask the children to close their eyes, and listen to the drums, and to imagine what it might have been like hundreds of years ago.

Multiple times throughout the day I also take the children to meet my friends, so that they will have an opportunity to see and talk with American Indian fathers holding sleeping babies, and American Indian mothers laughing, while braiding their children’s hair. I want them to see happy Indians laughing and joking with each other. Humor is an important American Indian cultural trait. We believe it is of key importance not only to laugh, but to also be able to laugh at ourselves. I want the kids to see American Indian children laughing, eating popcorn, being silly and playing the same games all children play. And then they had an opportunity to see those same children change into their dance regalia, have their hair braided, faces painted, and prepare to dance.

I want to provide stepping-stones for the children so they can begin to see that American Indian people have respect for our traditional ways, and that we are also real people too, who drive cars, and work as doctors and teachers. To show the children that American Indian mothers and fathers are also regular moms and dads who cook dinner, help their children with their homework, play baseball, and go out for pizza, and that we are not relics from the past.

Most of all I want the children to understand that Native Americans are Native Americans, even when we are not dressed in beadwork and feathers. I tell the kids that we are here to honor the past and be proud of our future. I share with them the stories my grandmothers told me about how each person is a link to history, and that when it comes to powwows some Native people chose to become drummers, others become dancers, but even those of us who are watching and listening, that every American Indian person at the powwow is connected, and is making a statement that American Indian people are still here. This is our celebration of life past, present and future.

Copyright © Terra Trevor. All rights reserved. 

First published at Speak Mom
Reprinted in The Huffington Post

Native American? Or, American Indian? 
There is no agreement among Native peoples. Both are used.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in California with roots in Colorado and Oklahoma, Terra Trevor is a widely published writer and author of a diverse body of work, and a contributing author of 10 books. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, literary journals online. terratrevor.blogspot.com

  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. —Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel